In China, Pro Bono is a Real Challenge

20 Jul 2016
Author: Robert Precht

Reprinted from The American Lawyer, June 27, 2016

By Anna Zhang, The American Lawyer
June 27, 2016
Photo credit: Katerina Andronchik

China isn't the easiest venue for pro bono work, international firms say. Just ask Dechert. The firm sometimes provides information pro bono on Chinese regulations and local procedures to nonprofits, such as Australia's Global Poverty Project, that are seeking to operate in China. But the firm can't give legal advice tailored to the client, says pro bono head Suzanne Turner, because China bars foreign law firms from practicing Chinese law. 

Rule Against Practicing Chinese Law

This prohibition virtually rules out any direct representation in Chinese courts or before any Chinese regulatory body. In fact, much of the pro bono work done in global firms' China offices has very little direct impact in China, says Seth Gurgel, Beijing-based Asia director of the Global Network for Public Interest Law (PILnet), which matches firms and pro bono projects. Like Dechert, international firms often find that research for foreign clients is their best bet for pro bono in China.Partnering on pro bono projects with Chinese firms is one way for global firms to tackle other kinds of pro bono projects. But while international firms often pair with Chinese law firms on transactions, such collaboration rarely happens in the pro bono area, Gurgel says, since pro bono culture is still at an early stage of development among Chinese law firms. While some interested lawyers are doing pro bono work individually, a firmwide push is generally lacking, he says.

One exception is MWE China, a Chinese firm that has had a strategic alliance with U.S. firm McDermott Will & Emery since 2007. "We've been part of McDermott's global pro bono group since we launched the alliance," says counsel May Lu. Her firm gets projects from McDermott's global pro bono clients such as the Clinton Foundation, Lu says, and it's also able to connect with pro bono clearinghouses such as PILnet or TrustLaw. Last year, nearly half of the 36 lawyers at Shanghai-based MWE China Law Offices contributed more than 20 hours each on pro bono matters, such as putting together research analysis to support LGBT plaintiffs' court arguments against conversion therapies.

The Politcal Pressures on Law Firms

In China, most pro bono litigation on behalf of socially disadvantaged groups is done by full-time public interest lawyers. Challenging the government, these lawyers often face police surveillance, detention and prison time. In a recent case, on June 3 the Guangdong Higher People's Court upheld a five-year sentence given by a lower court to rights lawyer Tang Jingling for "inciting subversion of state power." Ironically, these detained lawyers become pro bono causes themselves. But as a rule they don't get help from leading firms, either domestic or international. The ban against foreign firms practicing Chinese law is not the only deterrent. "We are mindful about sensitive issues," says a Hong Kong partner at a large U.S. firm, who is in charge of his firm's Asia pro bono work. "In the U.S., if you take on a pro bono case against the government, people won't say, 'We don't want to get on the wrong side of the government.' It's part of what pro bono culture in the U.S. is all about. But not every country is like that."

What Firms Can Do: Moral Support

But just because foreign firms can't provide direct support to detained Chinese lawyers doesn't mean they can't give moral support, says Robert Precht, PILnet's former China director, who now runs Hong Kong-based Justice Lab, a nonprofit that mentors people in public interest law. Precht argues that international firms can help organize events in Hong Kong and overseas to discuss public interest law in China and the detained lawyers. "Law firms can talk about them without provoking the response from the Chinese government," Precht says. Such events, he adds, "can give the lawyers under attack in China a sense that they belong to a larger community."